Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along” has become as notorious — and beloved in some circles — as one of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays. The first Broadway production closed after just 16 performances, a high-profile flop that’s chronicled in the documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” and subsequent revivals have struggled to come to terms with its challenges, including a told-backwards narrative structure that introduces the three central figures in the bitter throes of middle-aged dissolution.
Maria Friedman, a British actress and Sondheim veteran, brings an actorly touch to the material in her professional directorial debut, which first played in London a decade ago and opened Monday at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in a starry production led by Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe and Lindsay Mendez. That cast is one of the primary appeals of this revival, helping to soften the story’s central trio of striving and often unlikable creatives.
Groff in particular is a revelation as Franklin Shepard, a once-in-a-generation composing talent who morphs into a self-centered Hollywood producer barely clinging to his second marriage. The “Spring Awakening” and “Hamilton” alum is an irrepressible charmer, and it’s easy to see how he deploys his charisma and crystalline tenor to take the edge off his character’s inherent jerkiness. He’s a narcissist capable of flashes of regret — it’s a shame that he doesn’t have a song to voice his contradictions, his own version of “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy.”
In comparison, Radcliffe’s playwright character, Charley Kringas, initially emerges as the more obnoxious of the duo — bitter about the breakup of his creative partnership with Frank (despite his own success as a solo artist) — as he delivers his memorably manic Act 1 rant “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” in which he eviscerates his sometime collaborator in a live TV interview. (Radcliffe, whose second act solo is shakier vocally, has a solid American accent and an expressive face that recalls silent-film star Harold Lloyd.)
Mendez, meanwhile, strikes a more poignant note as Mary Flynn, an aspiring writer who’s carried an unrequited Bic lighter for Franklin since they first met in their 20s and whose personal arc is the most savage: She ends up a fall-down drunk whose career has nosedived from bestselling novelist to the ultimate punchline — critic. Even so, she’s the one who works the hardest to keep the old gang together through their ups and downs — and Mendez projects a vulnerable longing for companionship that is truly affecting, particularly in the Act 1 closer, “Now You Know.” (She’s less convincing in that opening drunk scene.)
Reg Rogers is another standout as Joe, the hot-shot producer whose career (and wife) get usurped by Frank. And Krystal Joy Brown sings and vamps the hell out of that striving starlet, Gussie, despite a character who remains stubbornly one-dimensional (ditto for Beth Shepard, Frank’s unfortunate first wife, played with pluck by Katie Rose Clarke). The women in this show, including Mary, just can’t seem to catch a break.
Sondheim’s score is typically challenging and memorable — with standout tunes including “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends” that have become standards in cabarets and revues. But the backwards structure of the narrative — chronicling Frank, Charley and Mary from the bitter unraveling of their friendship in 1976 to their wide-eyed mutual ambition on a Manhattan rooftop in 1957 — remains a challenge. As does George Furth’s book, an update of a George Kaufman and Moss Hart play, that’s deadened with some seriously clunky dialogue and exposition. (As Mary says at one point, “Success ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” You don’t say.)
There are some other curious missteps in this staging. Soutra Gilmour’s set, which morphs from David Hockney-style Southern California cool to Manhattan sleek, is efficient but underwhelming, while Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design leaves the cast in shadows at inopportune moments. (The NYTW’s wide, shallow stage does nobody any favors.)
Given the A-list cast and the size of the space, this “Merrily” has become one of the hottest tickets of the season — and it’s easy to imagine a Broadway transfer in its future. Friedman works hard to blur the weaknesses of Sondheim’s biggest misfire, and she mostly succeeds in delivering a psychologically coherent study of how youthful aspirations and good intentions can evolve over time into something less rosy but no less real. Still, even a perfect version of this material is unlikely to win over casual theater fans. “Merrily” is built to be admired rather than fully embraced.